How To Ignore Email Without Guilt

You cannot respond to everything. Here’s how to make peace with the end of Inbox Zero.

How To Ignore Email Without Guilt
[Photo: Flickr user Katia Romanova]

You receive hundreds of messages a day. Keeping on top of your inbox eats up time you could be thinking, mentoring, seeing your family, or sleeping. And yet deleting a query (or just letting it sit there) feels so wrong.


Is there any way to ditch the email guilt?

Absolutely, says Jocelyn Glei, founding editor of the productivity website 99U, and the author of the new book Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done. “For me, to understand why we’re behaving in certain ways is the first step in beginning to change that behavior,” she says. “You can start to be more conscious.”

Here are her suggestions on how to free up your digital life.

Understand reciprocity

Humans are social creatures. We are hardwired to return favors, and oddly enough, we view communication as a favor. In one famous experiment from the 1970s, a researcher mailed close to 600 complete strangers holiday cards. More than 100 responded with their own cards and notes.

In many cases, reciprocity is good. It helps society function. But, says Glei, “I think we need to start thinking about a digital self vs. a personal self. Your digital self can literally receive an infinite amount of emails/Twitter replies/FB notifications.” No one has to pay postage. People can cut and paste and send multiple times. Unfortunately, your real world self has just 168 hours a week to process all this. “In that world, reciprocity is a losing game,” says Glei. The feeling is real, just not helpful.


Accept that you will disappoint someone

Here’s a reality check: “There’s no way you can possibly respond to everything,” says Glei. So the question is not how you can get to Inbox Zero. It’s how to choose who you disappoint and who you don’t. Most of us would prefer to disappoint strangers vs. people we work with closely. Create VIP lists so you see messages from colleagues, friends, and family first.

It might also help to envision email as physical mail. Getting 300 physical letters a day approaches the sort of fan mail volume that an old school rock star might have received. Now, “everyone is a rock star in terms of how much email they get,” says Glei. “That’s kind of a nice way to think about it.” It frees you up to ignore some of it, as a rock star would, or give brief, slightly personalized but canned responses (e.g. “Thanks for your note, Laura. Here are 10 links you might find helpful.”)

Assume people expect “no” or no response

Given how easy it is to send email, a query from someone you don’t know well might be one of 100 that person sent (e.g.: “Will you be on my podcast?”). Glei recommends realizing that some people are brought up to believe that you might as well ask for anything, since people can always say no. Others believe you should only ask if you think you have a good shot at getting a yes.

If you fall in the latter camp, random email queries will likely grate on you, consuming much mental energy, so you’re better off assuming people are just throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. “That actually relieves a lot of the anxiety,” says Glei.

Figure out a ratio

In a world where you cannot respond to everything, you need to spend less time doing, and more time deciding what should and should not be done. A practical way to do this when processing email is to “make it a ratio,” says Glei. Figure out how much email you get per day (e.g.: 200 messages). Figure out how many replies you can reasonably send (maybe 50?). This gives you a ratio of 1-out-of-4. As you’re going through your inbox, aim to respond to a quarter of your messages. It’s a quick way to weigh one message against another.


Incidentally, a response can simply be to tell someone when you will get to their query. Many times, people just want to know where their request sits in the hierarchy of your time. Telling someone you will be back in touch Monday (and then putting a note on your calendar to do so) is a perfectly lovely response.

Focus on the big picture

It sounds morbid, but Glei recommends picturing your tombstone. Will it read “Jocelyn: She checked all her email?” she asks. Hopefully not. Email is not your job. It is a tool to do your job. “You only live once,” she says. So ask, “What do I really want to be doing at work in this life?” Chances are, responding to email is only part of it.

related video: Why This Entrepreneur Responds To Every Email He Receives

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at